William Phelan was torn between his policy and his obligation.
The vice president of the Calvert County school board fundamentally disagrees with a measure he and the rest of the board approved that assesses county public high school students a $75 annual fee to participate in school-sponsored athletics. Public schools, he said, should provide for their students, not vice versa.
He also knows it is his responsibility to work within the county's budget. Programs and staffing faced the threat of cuts, he and his colleagues agreed, had they not found another revenue stream.
Phelan could not reconcile both. With $1 million of this year's budget in flux, the board voted to institute the fee, which has been criticized by coaches and parents in the county since it was first proposed five months ago.
Superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon said officials hope the fees will bring in about $125,000 this school year.
"I just think that sports are a part of education," Phelan said. "Not just sports, but the whole [group] of activities at high schools are as much a part of education as English literature and algebra. If it is as important as I think it is, we wouldn't think of our children paying for an algebra book because algebra is a part of education. . . . [But] the rationale is we need the money, and we need a lot more than that."
The board also imposed a $10 participation fee for a limited number of other extracurricular activities, such as band, drama club and mock trial team. The need for transportation to events for these activities necessitated that fee, said board President Gail Hoerauf-Bennett.
The past five months have been "very difficult," Hoerauf-Bennett said. "It's been the philosophy of the school board for a long time that we don't charge families for things we offer. . . . [But] it's getting to the point with the budget that this is something we had to do. We had no choice in the matter."
While students whose families qualify for reduced or free lunch will pay reduced or no participation fees, opponents of the fee worry that participation will drop. They say students from lower-income families will be reluctant to come forward to admit financial hardship.
"By the time they get to high school, that's become a more sensitive issue," acknowledged Leon Langley, supervisor of athletics for Calvert County public schools. But he said most coaches will be able to overcome any hurdles.
"As a coach, I know who my athletes are. I know who you are, where you are [financially]. I believe for the most part that coaches who know their kids will make sure they come out," he said. "I think it's reasonable. It's set up in a way that anyone who wants to play can. No child who wants to participate won't go without participating."
Hoerauf-Bennett said the board plans "to monitor [participation] very closely . . . and we'll analyze it at the end of the year." She added that participation increased last school year in the county's middle schools, which had a participation fee of $35 for the first time.
Calvert joins several other Maryland counties with activities fees: Montgomery County charges each student $20 per school year to participate in after-school activities; Frederick and Washington counties each charge $55 per student per season; and Carroll County charges $60 per season.
Charles County eliminated its $50 participation fee in 2000 by signing a 10-year contract to give Coca-Cola exclusive vending rights in county schools. The county receives about $175,000 annually in the deal.
"I'm glad they reduced it a little bit," said a county parent who requested anonymity because of her current financial status, "but I wish they didn't do it at all. . . . They took a lot of heat for it."
Hoerauf-Bennett, Phelan and Horsmon all denied having heard much public opposition to the matter. Phelan, however, said that might change Saturday, when parents will first have to pay the fees on the first day of fall sports practice.
"I think we're going to find out real quickly," Phelan said. "I think it's going to be interesting to see what the reaction is. . . . I'm expecting that we're going to get some flak, and justifiably so. If people don't like it, they should let it be known."
Not only was the imposition of the fees coolly received, but so was its timing. Some thought the issue was decided over the summer to minimize immediate public reaction, though board members denied that.